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Thursday, 12 May 2011

Singapore General Elections 2011 - debriefing - PAP's big 3 losses

In my last blog entry, I had noted the significance the People's Action Party's 60.14% vote share in the General Elections when considering the large proportion of the electorate that could vote.

So that's the mandate on the national level. However, votes can also be influenced at the local level, as in, whether the running candidates can meet voters' expectations in managing their constituency well and acting as good representatives for them in Parliament.

At the local level, I think the three biggest "losers" for the PAP were Marine Parade, Bishan-Toa Payoh and Tampines.

First, a short background on my thinking. Generally, an election is rarely clean-cut. It is not simply about national issues or constituency upkeep or a popularity contest. It is about all of these… and more.

In Singapore, though, I think that national issues and candidate popularity take on even more significant weight. Being a small country, everyone is almost directly influenced by national policies. For example, a transport fare review is not implemented per constituency, but islandwide. Or, when the Housing and Development Board (HDB) adjusts its formula for determining housing prices, that formula is implemented on flats everywhere, not just in one particular area.

Candidate popularity also becomes important in Singapore, and this is mainly because of the cult-like status that the PAP ascribes to its members. PAP members, especially ministers, are treated with awe by the mainstream media. For the large proportion of the population that still depends on mainstream media for news and entertainment, this veneer of reverence is impressed on them as well. (Aside: I think this in part is why a lot of people still hold faith that the PAP can do no wrong.)

Singapore has another quirk in its democratic system: the group representation constituency (GRC). In this scheme, voters within a constituency elect a group of people, usually four to six candidates. The PAP's strategy for the GRC is to ensure that there is at least one Cabinet minister in each group, acting as the "anchor" candidate.

During the General Elections, the PAP constantly chided the Workers' Party (WP) for forcing the Aljunied voters into an emotional dilemma: choosing between the PAP and the WP. In truth, all GRCs are emotional dilemmas. If a group has one popular candidate but a dud for another candidate, voters are forced to decide if the popular candidate is worth voting for at the risk of also having the dud in Parliament.

So for me, between the two factors of national issues and popularity, Singapore elections are even more influenced by the candidates' popularity.

Marine Parade - 56.65% constituency vote share
This aspect of candidate popularity was most evident in Marine Parade. Helmed by Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, the PAP team there was thought of to be virtually unassailable. SM Goh had been widely regarded as "the people's prime minister" back in the 1990s, so he should have had a smooth ride into Parliament. (Aside: whenever I see that phrase, I think "communism".)

However, during the election, SM Goh had made several statements that must have left voters scratching their heads. One day, he had some nasty remarks for Tan Jee Say, a candidate from the Singapore Democratic Party, who was his private secretary when he was prime minister. The next day, he gave a glowing review of Mr Tan. Then, when he was complimenting George Yeo, SM Goh inadvertently cast doubts on the capabilities of his fellow Cabinet ministers.

There could be other reasons too. Some may also blame SM Goh for setting Singapore on the path to its current situation when he was prime minister. Others may be wondering what's going on beneath his constant smile and gentlemanly demeanour. Or they may simply just not like him as much as, say, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean.

So I don't believe that the 56.65% vote share was just because of national issues, or Ms Tin Pei Ling's poor voter reception (who might be regarded as the "dud" in my example above), or even the star power of the Nicole Seah, the candidate for the National Solidarity Party that stood against the PAP in Marine Parade. I think there were more stand-out reasons.

Bishan-Toa Payoh - 56.94% constituency vote share
This was another constituency where the PAP took a hit because of the popularity of its anchor minister, Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng. Unlike SM Goh, DPM Wong said the right words and did the right things during his campaign. He was also up against a well respected veteran opposition candidate, Mr Chiam See Tong.

But then, there is always Mas Selamat. Or rather, the escape of terrorist Mas Selamat. Or rather, the quick dismissal of blame for letting a lame man escape from jail, as ridiculous as that sounds. In safe and secure Singapore, Mas Selamat's escape was a splash of cold water on our collective face. So when Singaporeans needed someone to blame for splashing that cold water, all fingers pointed at DPM Wong.

Many expected the punishment to fit the blame. Perhaps seeing how other countries had done, they demanded DPM Wong's resignation. Of course, he didn't throw in the towel. Instead, the PAP-led Government explained what happened in the escape, assigned blame to and fired the prison officials, and said in Parliament, "Let's move on".

But from the 56.94% vote share, Bishan-Toa Payoh voters were most likely not ready to move on. Also, that constituency had not one, but two ministers, the other being Minister of Education, Ng Eng Hen. That raised the stakes for voters, and it would seem that while they were willing to punish DPM Wong, they weren't ready to lose two ministers in one fell swoop.

Tampines - 57.22% constituency vote share
Like Bishan-Toa Payoh, I think you need not look further than the anchor minister, Mah Bow Tan. As the Minister for National Development since 1999, he has also governed over the HDB, and therefore earned the wrath of voters who were unhappy with expensive housing prices. Mr Mah is a man who speaks straight from his head, which may be perceived as being blunt or even arrogant.

At the start of the elections campaigning period, Mr Mah already found himself on the defensive, having to defend the HDB's policies and pricing of new flats. This was covered extensively by the mainstream media and that should have been that. But the relentless raising of the cost of housing throughout the campaign ensured that the issue remained top-of-mind.

And even when Mr Mah and the PAP refuted the opposition parties' solutions for lowering housing costs, it always seemed like the people just weren't buying their reasons. At the end of the day, I think Tampines voters voted with their pockets, and that caused the PAP's vote share in Tampines to be below their national vote share.

Some may also blame the PAP's moving of Baey Yam Keng to that constituency at the last minute. That might be perceived as the party's failure to plan properly, and given them last-minute jitters. But if that was a factor, I don't think it was a big one. Throughout the elections, the issue was squarely on housing costs, and unfortunately, the PAP anchor minister in Tampines was the man in charge of housing.

What about Joo Chiat (51.01%)?
PAP candidate Charles Chong was transplanted to Joo Chiat only days before Nomination Day, so he probably didn't have enough time to build rapport with the voters there. Thus, I would ascribe his narrow win to a genuine tussle between the PAP and WP brands. In this case, the PAP brand had the slight edge, thus giving Mr Chong his win.

What about Aljunied (45.29%)?
I would put the PAP's loss here to two overriding reasons: the WP's diligent effort at working the ground there for the last five years, and the voters there who heeded the call for an opposition voice in Parliament. Yes, you could blame George Yeo for the loss, but I wouldn't, because I can't find anything in the last five years or even before where he had made any big political missteps.

If looking at the popularity factor, then Aljunied's loss may have been due to the presence of another minister in the PAP line-up, Ms Lim Hwee Hua. As Second Minister for Transport, she may have taken the brunt of the people's displeasure at rising transport costs (something that Minister for Transport, Raymond Lim, miraculously survived).

But I think the PAP's loss of Aljunied was due to the WP. In my next post, I'll share my thoughts about the stalwart WP and its performance at General Elections 2011.


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